Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 / 5.00

The city of Ninavel is rather unusual, and not just because it is built in an inhospitable desert. Founded by a powerful mage, it allows any and all magics to be used, just as long as the practitioner can pay his water tax and does not make too much of a mess. It is also home to the Tainted: children who can instinctively use magic to fly and do other useful things, such as circumvent other forms of magic. This makes those with the Taint very valuable to certain members of the underworld until they reach puberty and the Taint vanishes. At this time they need to find another way to make themselves useful.

After losing the Taint, Dev became an apprentice to an outrider and trained to be an expert in climbing, predicting the weather and leading merchant trains through the Whitefire Mountains into neighboring Alathia. To supplement his income he smuggles low-level magical charms across the border, because Alathia has very strict rules about who can use magic and for what purpose. This is relatively easy, but now he has been asked to smuggle a live person across the border and he needs to complete this job in order to protect a young girl in his care. As things go from bad to worse, Dev comes to realize that he will be lucky to survive with his skin and mind intact as he tries to maintain the pretense that young Kiran is simply his new apprentice.

I actually won signed copies of this title and its sequel, The Tainted City, from Fantasy Cafe and I have to admit that I was drawn to them by their covers, which seem like fairly traditional Fantasy with a modern twist. Perhaps I also responded to the suggestion of mountain climbing because I know a little of the sport and have spent many happy hours walking and cycling through the mountainous regions of the UK.

I had not realized that landscape would play such a large role in this title, but it was a pleasant surprise and spoke to the same love of nature that I find in Tolkien’s work, amongst others. The author spends a great deal of time climbing and it shines through in her writing. She conveys the environment with great skill and also captures the emotions that can be provoked by pitting oneself against a natural challenge. I appreciated her knowledge of climbing and its techniques and yet I did not feel as if I was becoming bogged down by details and long-winded explanations of how to tie a specific knot correctly. I felt that she was very successful in giving us just enough detail to make us able to get inside Dev’s mind so that we could understand how he uses climbing as a sort of meditation.

As well as providing a good backdrop to this fantasy world, I felt that the practical details of the journey helped to both enrich Dev’s character and provide us with a sense of the time taken to travel. So often travelling is done with a sentence or two and we do not feel the hardships that it involves, and yet here we given the time to get to know our characters whilst they were placed in jeopardy of a real and physical nature. They also had time to learn about each other and to bond by overcoming adversity in the simplest of ways as they travel through the mountains. This meant that we could explore their initial distrust so that their actions were completely understandable and their ultimate decisions to trust one another were much more poignant and satisfying. It is strange how the decision to linger over the practicalities of travel allowed this to become so much more character-focused than I had expected.

This focus on character is also evident in our leading men. They are fairly gray characters, with significant aspects to their personalities and pasts that make them less than typical heroes, although we do see them becoming more heroic as the plot progresses. I found this rather refreshing because it kept me guessing about exactly who to believe in and what I could expect them to do: any title that keeps me thinking is much more likely to keep me turning those pages!

Other than the two leads, we have a few notable secondary characters that are also interesting and well drawn. The ‘evil’ mages are suitably three-dimensional, so that they do not become caricatures and we have a nicely ambiguous spy who keeps us all guessing right up until the last time we see him. However, the standouts amongst the supporting cast were the two other outriders with the convoy. They were not given much detail, but they were strongly drawn and intriguing, especially Cara, the hard-bitten female leader of the team. I particularly appreciated her romantic entanglements were shown only briefly and that she was not simply present to be the ‘love interest’. She plays a significant role towards the end of the book and I expect her to be even more prominent in the sequel.

The plot itself comes to a relatively satisfying end, although there are sufficient open ends for the sequels in what I believe is intended to be a trilogy. There are hints at political intrigue and plots with plots to gain power and control over the magical resources of Ninavel, so I expect that we will explore those much more thoroughly in the later books. There is also Dev’s ex-girlfriend who robbed him blind and who could make a reappearance, although I might be mistaken about that. I also hope that we get more details about the various forms of magic and how they work, but that is more because I find it intriguing than because I found it missing in this title.

On the whole, this was an excellent story that kept me turning the pages and has made me very happy that I have the sequel ready to be read. I hope the other titles in The Shattered Sigil series are as good as this one.

Other Recommended Reviews

I read this title as part of several Challenges:

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